We recommend you read our intro piece, Before Getting Started: Things to Consider, before delving into this section. This guide assumes you have determined how you have identified a project and calculated the costs and needs associated with it. More info on those portions of the project can be found in our intro piece. This guide is about proceeding successfully once you have decided to go ahead with your project.
Make a Written Plan
Perhaps this sounds silly, if you are doing a small or self-funded project. Catching Stories notes that it is tempting not to make a written plan in these cases, but advocates you do so anyway. Having a written plan will help you have a solid outline of what you need to succeed. Keep in mind the following:
- The historical question you hope to answer.
- Possible individuals you want to interview. If you don’t have individuals identified, you might identify communities or institutions of which your interviewees will be a part.
- Project goals. Distinguish the goals of the project from the larger mission of your organization or objective. Passing a class is not really the project goal; understanding how teenagers view Slenderman is. You might need to finish the project to pass your class, but separate the forest from the trees.
- Cost. You should have already considered this before you started. Break it down now: equipment, travel, time, lodging, compensation, transcription, etc. If you are applying for a grant, the foundation is going to want to know what things are going to cost, rather than just getting a nebulous estimate of $6000 for the project. You can read more about grant applications offered by Utah Humanities and the Utah Division of State History here.
- Timeline. When beginning a project, you want a good idea of when it’s going to end, especially if you have organizations or individuals wanting your results. Not having a “due date” is often something that causes your project to peter out. As the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and you are dealing with individuals who are working, traveling, getting sick, etc., give yourself a significant time cushion. Catching Stories notes Howard stacks tells his students to expect things to take three times as long as expected. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it does show that you should not expect things to go as smoothly as you want.
- Storage, labeling and publicity. Unlabeled tapes in a box or numerically named files on your computer don’t do anyone but you any good (and probably don’t do you much good either). How are you going to make your project available? How are you going to make the metadata comprehensible? Remember that researchers usually want your transcripts rather than your audio alone. If you are working with an organization, they may have preferences, requirements, or help for your publicity.
Do Initial Research
Donald Ritchie notes that you can anticipate 90% of your work will be done before you begin your first interview. It doesn’t help to go into an interview about life under the Khmer Rouge then stare blankly at your interviewee when they mention Pol Pot or the Killing Fields. Obviously, you are going to learn new things as your interviews proceed, and you certainly can’t know everything about your subject (especially as interviews may take you to new topics enitirely), but you should be able to go in with a solid groundwork.
There are plenty of places to start your research. In addition to the books and scholarly articles, you may go through local archives at a public library or newspapers from the time or around the topic you’re interested in. Additionally, you might consider asking your interviewees for sources before an interview. This may be less applicable in some situations than in others, but if you are interviewing famous individuals or those who led organizations, movements, etc., there is a good chance they have useful documents or photographs that might help you prepare for your interview. Be sensitive, clear, and respectful in your requests and treatment of this material, if your interviewee presents you with any.
Do your ethnographic fieldwork, if possible
Finding interviewees and ethnographic fieldwork is a big topic. You can read more about it in our page on Finding Interviewees. Some of this will be more applicable in some projects than others. If you are working with a local community, it can be essential. If you are part of a larger project interviewing famous American authors, it might be harder to find opportunities to hang out with Stephen King. Check out the page and see how it applies to your project.
Prepare your Questions
How many should you prepare? As Donald Ritchie notes, you will probably want too many questions rather than too few. You can’t anticipate how long of a response any given question will elicit, and it will vary from interviewee to interviewee.
Your questions should be open-ended in order to facilitate useful responses. “What led you to flee Syria?” is more useful than “Was the civil war bad?”, and “Can you tell me about how you ended up in America?” may get you an even better answer.
Remember, you are in a very real sense invading your interviewee’s privacy, even if you have been invited to interview them. Be sensitive and thoughtful in your wording. We will go over more about how to ask the questions during the interview in another section.
Be familiar with your equipment
You don’t want to finish an excellent interview just to find out that you needed to press the record button twice on your recorder to start it, that your microphone is faulty, that your battery died half-way through, or that your memory card was full. You might have an interviewee courteous enough to give you a second take, but the interview will likely not be as detailed as the first if you are treading the same ground as you did in the first interview. A repeat interview on the same topic also can be irritating for them and doesn’t look for you if it could have been prevented by some technical competence.
Learn how to comfortably run your equipment so that you can operate it when you’re nervous during an interview. Practice recording in a variety of settings, loud and quiet, indoor and outdoor to get an understanding of how your recorder picks up sound. If you are filming, you will want to also experiment in a variety of lighting settings. Store everything you need together so you don’t end up in an outdoor interview and not have your windsock for your microphone, or need to change your batteries and discover that you left it in your other bag.
Prepare your Paperwork
Since you are working with someone else’s stories, you will need to prepare appropriate paperwork. Even if your interviewee might be happy to let you have the interview with a verbal agreement, it’s wise to have a written form. The form will layout what the history will be used for, where it will be stored, who has rights to it, etc. If you’re working with a university, organization or a repository, they may have specific forms they require you to use, and you may need to have multiple forms in that case. Don’t ask your interviewee to sign it before the interview. It isn’t fair to ask someone to sign something before they know what the interview will end up being.
Coordinate with your team
If you are working with a community partner during your interview, or if your interview team consists of several individuals (a recorder, photographer, etc.), make sure you are all in contact and on the same page. If you are only one of several interviewers working on the same project, it’s a good idea to coordinate and share what you’ve discovered. Though your interview styles will be different, the project will benefit from uniformity in paperwork, vision, question, etc.
For additional information, see the first section of chapter three in Donald Ritchie’s Doing Oral History, and chapter two of Donna Deblasio’s Catching Stories: A Practical Guide to Oral History, and dohistory.org, sources upon which this guide is based.